The Unexpected, by Carol Berge.
5" x 8"; 72 pp; perfect bound. 1976.
The Unexpected, by Carol Bergé
I'd like to start my comments on this book with a note on another book, another era, and the impact a single, small book could have at one time. The book was edited and published by Amiri Baraka in 1962 - in the days when he went by the name LeRoy Jones. Its title was Four Young Lady Poets. The four poets were Carol Bergé, Barbara Moraff, Rochelle Owens, and Diane Wakoski. Although the book only contains half a dozen poems by each poet and has a title that now seems quaint, it certainly had more impact than some of the massive feminist collections of later decades. Although later critics have accused Baraka (perhaps not always without cause) of being misogynist and anti-semitic, I think the reader should note that the title was trying to escape derogatory terms before there was a women's movement or much awareness of how tricky such a title could be. It's also important to note that Bergé and Owens are goyish names acquired by marriage. At the time of publication, white males didn't publish women as uppity as these, if they published women at all.
That Baraka made a significant effort to reach out to another disenfranchised group not only does him credit, it also hints at the cultural foment of the literary scene in Lower Manhattan of the day, particularly the extraordinary and unsurpassed readings held at coffee houses and bars that acted as meeting places for members of groups that would later take on such names as Beat, Fluxus, Black Mountain, Feminist, New York School, Deep Image, and so on. Even more important to me, some would remain staunchly outside the labels of the day and retain their individuality, if also a certain lack of acclamation, throughout the succeeding decades. Jerry Rothenberg, Jackson Mac Low, Toby Olson, and Ted Enslin, the poets whose books I would publish most voluminously, all took part in this pluralistic scene without losing their individual identities. The coffee houses on the Lower East Side, and the bars in the East and West Villages and Washington Square also housed virtually every species of innovative music, theater, dance, sculpture, and painting going on in the world at that time. There may never have been so intense a nexus of hybridization anywhere before or since. Paris in the 1920s may have produced more classic works, but I doubt that any of its focal points included a similar density of creative energy or breadth and intensity of exchange.
The book itself was produced offset, and though extremely plain in comparison to poetry books published today, it was more crisply printed than the mimeo that dominated the scene from which it came. It may not have the raw energy of the magazines typed on mimeo stencils at the Eight Street and Deux Megots cafés during readings, but it was meant as an emissary not as part of the celebration directed toward the participants. Clearly, Baraka was trying to reach out to a larger audience with his books, even as he tried to form alliances in the scene on the Lower East Side. That his African-American friends, who came to identify themselves as the Umbra group after the title of a magazine they published, later found themselves at odds with some of the Euro-American poets in their milieu only suggests how hard he and other poets of all races and orientations had tried to form common bonds.
When I got my copy of Four Young Lady Poets in 1964 or 65, it was something I read and re-read, the way I and a lot of other young people read books at the time - that is, until the pages came out of the spines. Books of this impact and originality should still be part of the scene today; yet I don't expect to see them come forth, and can look at my own catalogue a bit sadly knowing that I have never packed so much into so few pages. That Owens, Bergé, and Wakoski would become particularly important to me later suggests both how seriously people my age took the books we could get and how completely original and audacious these poets were at the time. They weren't simply women who wrote work comparable to that of the guys - they were in some respects clearly ahead of them.
In Lower Manhattan during this golden age, Carol was not simply one of the poets who took part in the scene, she took an active role in organizing readings and related events. She didn't simply read, she made readings happen. She and Paul Blackburn, as a matter of fact, come across as its most important instigators and organizers among the poets on the scene. It seemed to me that Carol had wisely chosen to act as instigator as a strategy to avoid becoming a sex object in the milieu, as some of the women in the scene did indeed become. If so, it should be noted that some of the women - particularly Owens and Wakoski - worked out different ways of asserting themselves as independent women.
At the beginning of the new millennium, there has been renewed interest in some aspects of this scene - particularly in what it contributed to later literary movements and to such institutions as The Poetry Project at St. Mark's in the Bowerie, the Westminster Cathedral of American Poetry for over three decades. The pre-St. Mark's scene, however, seems at least as important to me, and may in time receive its due credit. Bergé has put a great deal of effort into making this happen, but has not succeeded. It is, perhaps, a job for another generation, particularly since young people have discovered the "mimeo revolution," one of whose centers was the Lower East Side in the 1960s. I hope that as discussion of mimeo procedes, it includes Cleveland, which was at least as important as New York in this medium.
Bergé was one of the poets I thought I might meet during my first pilgrimage to the Lower East Side in the summer of 1967. I did not make contact with her, however, until three years later, and didn't meet her for seven years after that - a year after I published The Unexpected. The letter writing that began in 1969 or 1970, however, lead to interesting and constructive exchanges. It seems to have come at precisely the right time for me. Carol was moving away from poetry into fiction by the early 70s, and The Unexpected was something like a summary or coda to her work as a poet. She had developed an extremely compressed style in her verse, but seems to have found lineation and sound patterns constraining to it. She had started writing what she called "one page novels," and I published several of these as single sheet broadsides. They may in the long run prove her most enduring work.
Carol had tried extended verse narrative, without the greatest success, and other verse divergences from her earlier poems didn't seem to work most successfully for her. With The Unexpected, she was essentially returning to the kind of verse she was most happy with, looking back at her coffee house phase with some nostalgia, but at the same time reprising its energy and optimism. In the poems in this book, she ran through a range of modes and approaches typical of and appropriate to the reading environment she had left, but in which she had felt most energized and content.
You can see and hear some of this in the on-line selections from the book. The repetitive invitations, resembling at once incantation and the hesitancy of approaching someone new in "Song for Beginning" make an ideal opening for a book of poems that hearkens back to small coffee houses where the audience and the readers changed places at regular intervals, and potential new participants were as welcome as the new lovers they might become. Like many poems in the book, "Tomcat Doing Nothing" bears a dedication to an individual, and is the kind of poem that becomes more highly charged if you consider it as read to someone singled out in a public place, with an attentive audience watching the reader and seeing the dedicatee listen to it. Note how differently this poem works from another bearing a dedication, "Of Roots and Sources." Clearly, the two individuals addressed play a role not only in the poems, but in the awareness of who is listening to the poem being read. Despite its ironies and sarcasms (and, I believe, its origin in Woodstock rather than the Lower East Side), "The Small Town" makes an ideal poem to read to a group, all of whom share to some measure in its transactions. Some of the poems in the book include arcane references and "in jokes" and allusions that people not of the immediate company probably would not catch. Although finished and polished, "Unfinished Poem" uses the conceit of work-in-progress to simultaneously allow an easy progression of firm, graceful images, but also to include the clothing and other elements of the ambience of the reading environment to feed back into the poem. Although the poems move from hushed to declamatory, all carry the potential for intimate delivery in a stable and friendly reading environment, a place for friends to congregate.
Carol could show a thorny personality to friend and enemy alike, and this is something many people who knew her remember most. But I think these poems put forward the kind of person she most wanted to be, and reflect most clearly the way she would have liked to relate to people. If the book is a look back at the period when Carol reveled in public readings, and, in effect, makes a catalogue of tropes she had used in poems meant to be read aloud, the book makes a nice coda to a period important to me and to Carol herself. Most people find themselves at times thinking after a conversation of something they would have liked to have said but hadn't thought of at the time. This book has a similar quality: a collection of poems Carol would have liked to have read at her cherished coffee houses, but hadn't yet thought of.
The cover image and its abstractions in the endpapers came from a Chinese zodiac disk. I liked the way this image interacted with Carol's interest in astrology, the book's subtitle "poems based in the elements," and the I-Ching hexagram components of the disk. Carol thought it important that she was a Libran, and the circle of the disk suggests perpetual balance. Since perpetual balance suggests perpetual boredom, I placed it off-center in the field of the cover seen as a piece of sculpture. The small part of the disk on the back suggested promise, as the small portion left off the front denied completion. All my perfect-bound books - that is books with a spine - up to this point had been done by hand. I usually bound books while listening to music or recordings of poets reading. With this book, I tested a commercial bindery, and found it inadequate to the expense incurred. This was, however, a continuation of the process of trying to learn how to produce a book that was readable, not bad looking, and something that poets could afford.
Click here to go to selections from The Unexpected